Commedia dell'Arte Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Commedia dell'Arte

Italian form of popular comedy characterized by improvisation and a collection of stock characters, flourishing 1550-1780.

Commedia dell'arte literally means “comedy of the actors.” The term implies a contrast between a popular form of comedic theater that included improvisation, on the one hand, with plays that were based on written texts, on the other. The form came into being around 1550 and reached its height of artistic and commercial success in Italy around 1650. During this time, the great stars of Italian comedy performed, including Flaminio Scala, Francesco Andreini and his wife Isabella, and Silvio Fiorillo. The deaths of those performers and an economic downturn in Italy signaled the decline in the popularity of the commedia dell'arte, which nevertheless continued to be an important form of theater until 1780.

The origins of the commedia dell'arte have been a source of scholarly debate. The respected theater scholar Allardyce Nicoll, for instance, promoted Greek comedy as its most likely progenitor, while other critics argued that the Italian actors' theater derived more directly from Roman farces. Each school of thought is based on the fact that the forms of classical Greek and Roman theatrical comedy also relied on improvisation and character types. Still other commentators have proposed that the commedia dell'arte could be directly traced to the religious Mystery Plays of the Middle Ages, citing the common factors of strolling players and improvising jesters. Later scholars, however, have suggested that while such sources may have had some influence, their defining elements had been altered to the extent that any comparisons from the viewpoint of literary history were unwarranted. Winifred Smith was one of the first scholars to point out that the origins of the commedia dell'arte might best be sought in the Renaissance-era commedia erudite—which translates as “learned comedy”—and in the street performances of clowns, jesters, jugglers, mimes, and others who entertained crowds during Carnival, a traditional period of celebration that precedes the austerities of Lent much in the manner of Mardi Gras in the United States. The commedia dell'arte became a formalized style of theater with the organization of acting companies that specialized in the form during the mid-fourteenth century. By the end of the 1500s, companies such as the Gelosi, the Confidenti, and the Fedeli were sought after for performances at royal courts and aristocratic estates across Europe, though less formal groups of strolling entertainers continued to perform as well. Robert Henke has observed that the adaptability of both the actors of the commedia dell'arte and the genre itself made it possible to suit the performance to spectators of diverse places and social strata.

Though improvisation is considered a hallmark of the commedia dell'arte, spectators knew what to expect when they attended a performance. They would see some version of the four major characters, or masks: Arlecchino, or Harlequin, an innocent but foolish servant; Pantalone, a merchant and the master to Arlecchino; Dottore, a voluble and ignorant doctor; and another servant, usually Brighella, a bolder and more cunning companion to Arlecchino. For most of the golden age of the commedia dell'arte, all the characters participated in the clowning and the physical comedy, but the driving force of the plots was usually the servants, or zanni (from which derives the English word “zany”), and the romantic intrigues they attempted to carry out, either for themselves or their masters. With the addition of female actors to the stage, standard women's roles also evolved, including the Innamorata, or Prima Donna, often the daughter of Pantalone, and Colombina, her servant and the love interest of Arlecchino. These roles could be varied, though the presence of the zanni in some form was essential. A secondary role that appeared frequently was the Captain, who later became the Lover: a version of this was the seventeenth-century character Scaramouche. Within this basic format, the actors worked with scenarii (“scenarios”), which were effectively script outlines that would give some sense of the action and conflict to be portrayed in a scene.

The written scenarii were used for rehearsals, a practice that colors the modern notion of the commedia dell'arte as a theater of pure improvisation. As more recent scholars have observed, the line between scripted theatre and the performances of Arlecchino and Pantalone is difficult to draw. Many agree that the commedia dell'arte highlighted the technical skills of the actors rather than the talent of the playwright, though other distinctions are less clear. Certainly the performances were punctuated by acrobatics, music, and slapstick comedy rather than lengthy speeches. Michael Anderson has suggested that the players were skilled at memorization and would borrow from the commedia erudite and other literary sources, saving them in commonplace books and using them to flesh out their performances. The humor was generally broad and farcical: although some scholars have argued that the commedia dell'arte was satirical in nature, most maintain that the players were far more concerned with demonstrating their skills than with social criticism. Although the scenarii usually involve complex inter-class relations, critics generally have argued that they lack any politically subversive intent. In his study of the French playwright Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux's adaptations of the commedia dell'arte, Derek F. Connon demonstrated that the character of Arlequin (the French rendition of Arlecchino) does not lend itself readily to social criticism.

Modern scholarship devoted to the commedia dell'arte has focused more on the genre's performance and historical issues than on its themes or subject matter. To some extent, the continuing interest in the form has resulted from its extensive influence on European theatre and on modern comedy. Italian troupes traveled widely, and their influence on French and English comedy in particular is a common topic of critical studies. Kathleen M. Lea's pioneering study of the relationship between Italian and English drama argues that relatively few plays were influenced directly by the commedia dell'arte. Nonetheless, traces of the form are visible in much Renaissance drama, including Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Taming of the Shrew, Love's Labours Lost, As You Like It, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Among French authors, in addition to Marivaux, scholars have proposed that Molière's early farces show the influence of the Italian comedy. Film critics have also observed a connection between the comedy of silent film stars, such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and the commedia dell'arte, proposing that as evidence of the continuing influence of the form. In addition, some actors have attempted to revive the commedia dell'arte in the modern theater. In the late nineteenth century, Maurice Sand, son of the author George Sand, began performing scenes from the commedia dell'arte privately to lift his mother's spirits, eventually sparking a small-scale popular revival in France. More recently, the Italian playwright-actor Dario Fo, along with his wife Franca Rame, appropriated the character of Arlecchino as a medium for social criticism, performing a series of four monologues entitled Arlechinno in 1985. Although Fo and Rame's incarnation of the commedia dell'arte strays from the Renaissance version in its political ambitions, it shares with Italian popular comedy the emphasis on the “comedy of the actors” and the centrality of the performer in creating theater.